5 of Its 8 Months Have Elapsed : U.S. Contra Panel Idled by Spat Over Chairman

The Washington Post

Five months into its eight-month tenure, a much-ballyhooed commission named by Congress to keep tabs on Nicaraguan contra operations and on Central American peace efforts has no office, no telephone, no staff, has spent no money and has done no tab-keeping.

Instead, the two members named by House and Senate Democratic leaders are deadlocked with the two named by the Republican side over who should chair the panel. Five fruitless nominations and a dozen telephone conference calls later, no consensus is in sight.

"There will probably be some complaints pretty soon," said Edward L. King, a retired military Latin America specialist and consultant who was named to the group by Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd Jr. (D-W.Va.).

As part of the Oct. 15 legislation that provided $100 million in aid to the contras, the commission was authorized "to monitor and report on the efforts of the Nicaraguan democratic resistance to coordinate and reform, and on the status of any negotiations on the peace, stability and security of Central America."

$400,000 Allocated

The first report was due in December, after the first $60 million of the aid was disbursed, and the deadline for the second was March 20, after the last $40 million was turned over. The commission was allocated $400,000 for its work, and is to go out of business in June.

But things got off to a slow start. The last of the four members was not chosen until mid-November.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) picked former United Nations Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick; former House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) chose his top legislative aide, Kirk O'Donnell; and House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) named Ira Gallaway, a United Methodist Church pastor from Peoria, Ill., who is a founder of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

Kirkpatrick and Gallaway have sought a chairman who, in Kirkpatrick's words, will "function objectively (and) in a dispassionate spirit." O'Donnell and King want what King called "an honest broker . . . to mediate the partisanship that is built into the commission structure."

Democrats Voted No

The Republican side first nominated former Sen. Richard B. Stone of Florida, a Democrat, who was Reagan's first special negotiating envoy to Central America. The Democratic side voted no: "too committed" to the contra cause, King said.

Kirkpatrick and Gallaway then suggested another Democrat: John Silber, president of Boston University and a former member of the Special Bipartisan Commission on Central America, chaired by Henry A. Kissinger. "Same thing, too committed," King said.

King countered with former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, and the Republican pair did not vote no, but said they were "not prepared to vote affirmatively at this time." Schlesinger is known to regard Central America as a trivial issue, which Kirkpatrick does not.

O'Donnell next put up Robert Hunter, a National Security Council staff member in the Jimmy Carter Administration and a senior staff member of the Kissinger commission. This time it was Kirkpatrick and Gallaway who voted no, saying Hunter was too committed the other way, and would make "a very partisan chairman" against the contras.

The latest nominee from the Republican side is John T. Joyce, president of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen. "He's not neutral either," King said. He and O'Donnell are expected to reject him Tuesday.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World